It was a big world out there
But was ex-nun Claire Santaniello ready for it? Her yearning for a home and family had her shedding her habit and moving back to California. But her true calling definitely wasn't with sexy single dad Caleb McClain. Was it?
The stunning redhead seemed uncomfortable in the crowded bar. She was also tantalizingly familiar. Caleb couldn't believe the girl he'd once loved was now a teacher in their hometown. Soon after he rescued her from the dance floor, Claire made it her mission to bring out his softer side, arousing feelings Caleb couldn't ignore. Was it finally time for them to create the future together they both craved?
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So this nun walks into a popular hot spot
Ex-nun, Claire corrected herself silently. Dear God, what was she doing here, anyway?
The loud din of voices wedged itself into the throbbing music, forming one large wall of noise that seemed to swirl all around her. Thinking was becoming increasingly more difficult, never mind hearing and talking.
Claire supposed she was daring herself to forge ahead into the life she'd never previously sampled, the life she'd left behind.
Heaven knew that, although popular, she certainly hadn't had more than her share of dates. Less would have been a better word to describe the condition of her social life at the time. Her popularity had a universal appeal. She'd been the one people always talked to, the one they wanted to hang out with. She was a "friend" with a capital F to all, no matter what gender.
The bottom line was that she'd never had a boyfriend, no steady male in her life to turn to, to nurture secret dreams about. There'd been no one to make her pulse race, her adrenaline flow. She'd never even had a crush, much less been in love.
Was it so wrong to want to discover what she'd missed?
Her fingertips tingled. She was nervous. Just as nervous as she'd been this afternoon when her cousin Nancy, Nancy of the comfortable life, loving husband and four children, had insisted on taking her shopping for not just something suitable to wear tonight, but for undergarments, as well.
"What's wrong with what I have?" she'd asked.
"Nothing, if you want him immediately guessing that you were a nun."
She'd discarded the see-through panties that Nancy held up, trying hard not to blush. "There's not going to be a 'him,'" she insisted.
"Uh-huh." Picking up the panties again, along with two more just like them, Nancy grinned. "On me," she announced, heading toward the register.
Claire wasn't wearing them tonight. No way was she about to sail into a shallow relationship just to make up for lost time. She had to get used to the idea of going out with a man first. And that was going to take time. A lot of time. She'd been a nun for twenty-two years. She'd only been a "civilian" for a couple of weeks. She hadn't even told her mother that she'd left the order permanently when she'd first arrived home. Margaret Santaniello had been under the impression that her only child had gotten a leave of absence in order to care for her during an aggressive bout of leukemia. Her mother, who proudly proclaimed to all who listened that her daughter, Sister Michael, was "married to Jesus," had been horrified when she'd discovered, purely by accident, that Claire, to put it in her mother's words, had "divorced God" because of her.
Her mother had no way of knowing that this turn of events had been a long time in coming. That she hadn't lost her faith, but she had lost her passion. And perhaps lost pieces of herself, as well. Pieces she needed to find again. Pieces that weren't going to turn up here, she thought, looking around at Nancy and the other childhood friends who had dragged her to this place, a restaurant called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, where "hookups" were the not-so-secret hoped-for outcome of any given evening.
When she'd first thought about leaving the order, when she'd first felt that surge of restlessness, of no longer feeling fulfilled or being on the right track, she'd dreamed of having a family of her own, of children. However, that dream didn't extend to the segment before that ultimate goal was reached. She hadn't thought about dating, or the dreaded step before thatlooking for a date.
The idea of looking, of actually "dating" terrified her more than going off into the heart of Africa, armed with a truckload of medicine, a crucifix and an untested translator. That she'd undertaken almost fearlessly, believing she had God and right on her side because her intentions were selfless and noble.
God was no longer her copilot. She was flying solo here. And, if examined, her intentions could be deemed as self-centered or self-serving, both foreign feelings to her. The closest she'd come was the notion of remaining alive to see the next sunrise when she and the accompanying nurses had found themselves in enemy territory, caught in cross fire.
She wondered if sitting at a table in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could be deemed as being stranded in enemy territory.
She would never have come here on her own. But Kelly, Amy and Tess, the three women who had once been so close to her when they were all girls together, and her cousin Nancy had insisted that they come here for her maiden voyage into the secular world.
"Sure you don't want anything stronger than a ginger ale?" Amy asked, fairly shouting the question across the circular table.
In response, Claire wrapped her hand tighter around the tall, slender glass that was now only half-full, holding it as if it were a lifeline to sanity and safety.
"Yes, I'm sure." It wasn't that she'd never had a drink. She could hold her own when it came to hard liquor, like whiskey, something she'd also learned through necessitywhile in Africa, but here she felt she would do far better with a clear head.
Seated at her left side, Kelly leaned in and said the words close to her ear. "You don't look comfortable, Claire."
"I just thought that maybe we could have picked a quieter place to catch up," she answered. "Like the middle of an airport runway."
Amy laughed. "It is kinda noisy, isn't it?"
Nancy, seated on Claire's right, chimed in as she shook her head. It was clear that she considered her cousin her latest project. "There's 'catch up' and then there's 'catch up.'" A wink punctuated the end of her sentence.
Claire had had enough to deal with these last two weeks, getting reacquainted with her mother, finding a routine that suited them both and, come Monday, she was going to be facing a brand new job, presiding over a group of children who would not be addressing her as "Sister Michael." With all that going on, she wasn't in the market for, nor had the time for, any male-female relationship. "I don't want to catch up on that just yet."
"You should, Claire. The rest of us have been married at least once, or still are married" Amy nodded at Nancy "but you," she said, pointing a scarlet-painted index finger at Claire, "you haven't even gotten your feet wet." She gave her what Claire assumed Amy thought was a penetrating look. "Am I right?"
"I don't think 'feet' are the part of the anatomy that Amy's thinking about," Tess explained. About to say something else, her eyes widened as she zeroed in on someone at the bar. "Now that one's cute," she declared. She squinted, trying to make out someone. "I think I know the guy he's with. Want an introduction?" Tess looked ready to bounce up to her feet at the slightest sign of interest from her.
Claire shook her head vigorously. The last thing she wanted was to have some man dragged over to the table strictly for the purpose of her perusal.
"No, really," she insisted with feeling, grabbing Amy's arm in case the petite blonde was about to run off and make good on her threat. "I just wanted to see my old friends and talk, like we all used to."
"We 'used to' be seventeen and eighteen," Tess told her. "We're not seventeen and eighteen anymore." She punctuated her statement with a giggle. "Life moves on and all that crstuff." She changed the word at the last minute, a guilty expression slipping over her face.
"You can say 'crap' if you want to, Tess. You don't have to temper your language around me," Claire told her. "I'm not Sister Michael anymore."
Tess nodded, as if she should have known that. "Right. Does that mean you can't put in a word with the Big Guy, you know, for your friends?"
Claire smiled, leaning closer in order not to continue shouting. "I can pray for you if that's what you mean, but right now, I'm not too sure if He and I are on the same wavelength."
But she found herself talking to the back of Tess's head. Her friend had turned back around to look toward the bar, to make eye contact with the man she thought she'd recognized.
The latter separated himself from his friend and subsequently made his way over to their table.
Claire watched Tess light up like a desert sunrise, her attention completely riveted on the man who spoke with a slight southern drawl. "Just when I thought I wouldn't be seeing a beautiful lady tonight. Tess, how are you?"
"Just fine. Now," Tess purred.
He nodded toward the incredibly crowded floor just beyond the table. "Would you like to dance?"
Tess was already on her feet and two-thirds of the way into his arms. She took his hand before he had a chance to offer it. "I'd love to."
The next moment, they were swallowed up by the crowd.
It occurred to Claire that their table was located a few feet shy of what seemed to be the dance floor. A shoe box would have seemed less crowded, she thought.
"Don't worry," Amy said, patting her hand as she, too, began to look around in earnest. "We'll find you someone."
Very gently, Claire drew back her hand. "I don't want someone. I really did come here just to talk."
As she said it, Claire looked accusingly at Nancy, who'd been the first one to contact her with details about the impromptu "get-together." Nancy lifted her shoulders and went through the motions of a helpless shrug, her face the soul of innocence.
Claire wasn't buying it for a minute.
In short order, Amy and then Kelly were whisked away to the dance floor, as well, although Kelly, at least, promised to "be right back."
Claire had her doubts.
As she watched Kelly being led off, she frowned slightly and turned toward Nancy. "Something tells me I should have insisted that we all meet at IHOP."
"Pancakes can't compare to being in the arms of a man," Nancy cracked, then grew serious. "Don't fault them, Claire-bear, they meant well. They also don't think I get out enough," Nancy confided. "This supposedly is as much for me as it is for you."
"But you're married," Claire protested.
"And I make no secret of it." She held up her left hand. Both her wedding ring and her engagement ring were on the appropriate finger. "Patrick doesn't dance and I love to, but you're right, so get rid of that frown."
"I'm not frowning."
"Tell your lips that," Nancy advised. "Besides, once this latest invader comes along" she placed her hand on a belly that still had not begun to fill out with its newest occupant despite her being five months along "I won't be going anywhere for a good long while. This may be my last opportunity to get out."
She supposed she could see her cousin's point. But she still wondered about Nancy's marriage. "Patrick's all right with you coming here?"
"I'm not out trolling for men, Claire-bear," Nancy informed her with a grin. "I'm just here strictly as an observer. Not to mention that he does think I've gone to IHOP to meet you."
"No, I'm just kidding." Nancy laughed. "Patrick knows where I am. We have no secrets from each other. And besides," she added seriously, "he trusts me. We trust each other. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones."
Even as she said it, Nancy suddenly looked alert.
Claire scanned the area, expecting to see someone heading their way. But there was no one approaching their table. "What?"
"My phone's vibrating." Nancy pulled the phone out of her pocket. With a finger in one ear, Nancy placed the cell phone against her other one. "Hello? Yes, it's me. Okay, don't worry, it's all right. I'll be right there, honey."
"There?" Claire asked as Nancy shut the phone and put it back in her pocket. "Where's 'there'?"
"Home," Nancy told her. "One of the twins ran into the refrigerator door just as the other one swung it open. She cut her lip," Nancy told her, glancing around the floor for her purse. Locating it, she pulled it up and placed it in front of her on the table. "Patrick gets faint at the sight of blood." She looked apologetic as she added, "I'm sorry to be cutting the evening short."
Claire waved away the apology. This gave her an excuse to leave and she was grateful for it. "That's okay, I think I'm really ready to go."
Nancy looked at her in surprise, then realized the reason for the confusion. "Oh, no, I meant me. You stay, Claire."
Claire said the first thing that came to her head. "You might need a nurse, and I do have a degree, you know."
Nancy stopped for a second and smiled at her even as she shook her head. "I appreciate the offer, Claire, but after four kids, nursing has become second nature to me. Besides, we can't both leave."
"Because Amy, Tess and Kelly will wonder what happened." Her cousin rose and stood beside her for a second. "Look, I know you're antsy, but just stay a little longer. At least until one of them comes back to the table." She nodded toward the empty chairs. "Until then, you have to guard the purses."
Claire sighed. She'd forgotten about that. "Okay, but the second one of them comes back, I'm leaving."
"Whatever you want," Nancy agreed. "Next time," she promised, "you get to pick the place."
Because she didn't want to detain her cousin any longer, Claire nodded. But there wasn't going to be a "next time." Not for a while, anyway. After one venture, she knew she wasn't ready for this. She needed to get used to the rest of her life first, get comfortable in her responsibilities and new routine. Thenmaybeshe'd think about going to a place like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to meet men.
And then again, maybe not.
Claire looked at Nancy as the latter pushed her chair in. "Give me a call and tell me how she's doing when you get a chance."
Clutching her purse, Nancy leaned over the table and gave her hand a squeeze. "Will do. And try to have a good time while you're still here."
Claire forced a smile to her lips. "I'll do my best."
"Do better," Nancy instructed, then hurried off. And Claire felt very alone.
How long did these songs last, anyway? she wondered impatiently. Wasn't it about time at least one of the girls came back?
"Looks like all your friends deserted you, little lady."
Despite the noise, Claire heard the words clearly. Startled, she swung around and discovered a tall man standing directly behind her chair. And he was looking right at her.
"Not quite," she replied. "Three of them are on the floor, dancing. My cousin had to leave."
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